Last year, I watched Wrestlemania XXX in a Manhattan bar with a rowdy group of fans who were as embarrassingly passionate about wrestling as I am. The highlight — or lowlight — of the night was the notorious Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar match. Quick backstory: Undertaker had previously won an incredible 21 Wrestlemania matches in a row. Each year, someone plans to “beat the streak” but ultimately fails… until Lesnar shockingly won the match, prompting mass disbelief in both the arena and the bar.
The crowd’s faces — displaying subconscious but visible and visceral disappointment — became meme-like. But what’s weird is that it was almost deja vu, reminiscent of how everyone in my living room reacted about a week earlier when we watched the series finale of How I Met Your Mother: shock, annoyance, and disappointment. Both programs — a CBS romantic-comedy sitcom and an absurdly expensive wrestling pay-per-view — had built up strong, scripted narratives that dug their hooks into viewers who regularly analyzed and speculated, eventually coming to what would be a definite conclusion, only to witness the opposite. On the surface, it’s silly to compare the two, but WWE has always borrowed elements from sitcoms and dramas and, sometimes, it even does a better job using these elements.
WWE is marketed as “sports entertainment” rather than as a sitcom or a drama. Though the athleticism is obvious and impressive, it’s the “entertainment” that is more important and that is most on display. There are times when WWE can be viewed as a situational comedy: It features a handful of ragtag protagonists and antagonists, all thrown together without a real explanation as to what they’re doing there, who routinely find themselves in comedic situations that don’t usually exist in the real world. Episodes of Raw are filled with tropes: psycho ex-girlfriends, jerks with a heart of a gold, weddings gone awry (uh, really, really awry), odd couple tag-team pairings, and, of course, will-they/won’t-they romances between male wrestlers and the divas.
WWE has a long history of love triangles (Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, and AJ Lee; Triple H, Kurt Angle, and Stephanie McMahon — Punk and Lee are now married in real life, as are Triple H and McMahon) because they’re a natural, believable catalyst to force two men to come to blows. But they’re also so common because WWE follows the trope-filled trajectory of romantic comedies: long, back-and-forth courtships that gleefully frustrate viewers, pairings that lend themselves well to shipping (there is a lot of shipping in wrestling: I still miss the adorable clumsiness of Emma/Santino; I will not be satisfied until Wade Barrett and Dean Ambrose kiss at least once). Once the couple cements the deal, an obstacle reliably appears, generally in the form of a sweaty dude in tiny underwear.
Raw is an office sitcom with lovable workers clashing with their boss who power-walks around in a silly suit; it’s an animated sitcom with characters who never grow up and wear the same T-shirt every week; it’s a family sitcom about the Rhodes brothers, the Bella twins, the McMahon family. Raw loves lazy sitcom plot points, from the “mean-girl” Bella twins stealing punkish outcast Paige’s clothes from her locker room before a big match to awkward dinner parties gone wrong with real life/in-ring couples Naomi/Jimmy Uso and Natalya/Tyson Kidd. Like your run-of-the-mill CBS sitcom, WWE’s writing is full of laughably bad puns, gross-out humor (let’s never talk about Titus O’Neil’s vomit spree), and broad stereotypes: black wrestler R-Truth has a rapper gimmick and still speaks in “izzles”; Lana is a hard-ass Russian who verbally spits on America while showing giant pictures of Vladimir Putin on the TitanTron; and Cesaro/Jack Swagger were once a tag team billed as “The Real Americans,” who promoted xenophobia while their mustachioed manager Zeb Colter cut promos attacking illegal immigrants.
It is definitely easy to write Raw off as another “offensive” sitcom (and trust me, I’ve done it plenty) but the difference between, say, 2 Broke Girls and WWE is that at least here, the characters can quite literally fight back. Here, we can cheer as we watch a racist or sexist wrestler get the shit kicked out of him. There are still plenty of problems with Raw‘s portrayals, and perhaps the biggest thing the show borrows from sitcoms is its routine mistreatment of women and people of color, but the show’s quick turnaround makes it easier for us to express these complaints and see our concerns addressed promptly (even if they’re sometimes not addressed at all). It’s no coincidence that Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods formed the New Day stable 11 days after The Atlantic ran a big piece about WWE’s race problem.
But maybe it’s even better to look at WWE as a drama. It’s certainly not a prestige drama (something wonderfully but depressingly progressive: there are no dead women in Raw!), but it definitely floats between multiple genre dramas. Raw resembles a high school teen drama: the popular kids, the hot-tempered losers, the jocks (of course!), the rebellious badasses with authority issues, and even the weirdo goth/theater kids covered in face paint. In the same episode, it will switch to an eerie supernatural/mystery drama with the undead fighting the living, smoky pyrotechnics, stolen urns, and whatever the hell the Wyatt family are up to this week.
WWE is distancing itself from the term “wrestling”: wrestlers are deemed “superstars” and WWE, which once stood for World Wrestling Entertainment, has become less an acronym than just the company’s preferred moniker. And this makes sense, because viewing WWE as a TV drama rather than a wrestling program not only makes it a better form of entertainment; it also makes it easier for non-wrestling fans to understand why the rest of us love it so much. Yes, it is ridiculous and yes, it often completely misses the mark, but when it fully commits to building drama and does that well, it’s better than most dramatic programming.
I have never been more excited for a Mad Men or True Detective episode than I have been for any given pay-per-view event. The heel turns works as well as any Don Draper reveal; the nonsense Bray Wyatt spews could be substituted for any of Rust Cohle’s monologues. When skillfully plotted, the Raw episodes leading up to Wrestlemania are as addictive and entertaining as the first season of True Detective or the winding build-up of Breaking Bad — making the payoff that much greater (or more devastating, as in last year’s case). When we mourn our favorite wrestler losing a match, we’re not responding to the loss of a single fight as much as the larger storyline that he or she is part of. It’s an unwanted twist in the narrative, comparable to Rory Gilmore choosing the “wrong” suitor or a favorite Lost character suddenly getting killed off.
This doesn’t mean that WWE Raw is going to be entered into the Emmy race at any point in the near future — this is still a program that boasts a little person who pretends he’s a bull and, recently, an “inter-species” match between a wrestler and a man in a bunny costume. But it’s not far off to say that the show has proved that it can reach the caliber of popular sitcoms and dramas. That’s why it’s frustrating for fans to see WWE written off so casually by other television aficionados. Of course wrestling is fake entertainment, but so is every other scripted program on television — and wrestling often beats those at its own game.